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The Sustainability Measurement Conundrum: Recognizing the Elephant in the Room

It is difficult to imagine a sustainability professional making a speech without includingthe mantra, “What gets measured, gets managed!” This popular sentiment is backed by scores of books on sustainability metrics and measurement—not to mention the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and a numberof investor-led movements aimed at finding the perfect ESG (environment, social, and governance) metrics.

There are now so many metrics in use that people have invented “lenses” and materiality determinations to help beleaguered companies select the “right” sustainability indicators (and defend their selection). Metrics are so complex that the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) has created a metrics navigator.

This mind-set has created a drive for companies to choose their sustainability metrics first and then develop a set of sustainability initiatives to help them meet their goal numbers. Invariably, most of the metrics chosen tend to be lagging indicators. They often are based on GRI’s list of 79 such indicators, which are divided into five categories.

But is this really the best way to develop a sustainability program? Maybe what we need are metrics that can help drive an organization’s sustainability program forward, rather than judging the company on past performance.

If we want to develop a sustainability approach that truly meets the needs of the organization—rather than the needs of a standard list of metrics—then we have to add some leading indicators to the mix. These are the metrics that can help a sustainability program move forwardover the long term.

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